In a post on another blog here I gave my ideas for the content of a 3 month course for international students to understand Australia as well as possible.
Some of the topics and questions in that post teased out specific characteristics of Australia, but other questions were applicable to better understanding any country in Southeast Asia.
At this point in my first draft of this post I wrote out some of the replacement topics and questions that could be relevant to various regional countries, but after a while I noticed a pattern of Southeast Asian national characteristics that is a potentially more informative.
One is that, in any course seeking to develop a better understanding of Southeast Asian countries, religion should almost certainly feature more prominently.
A second is that open discussion of many events that have shaped contemporary Southeast Asia is much more contentious and thus less open to discussion, such as the role of the Thai monarch, the 1960’s Indonesian genocide and the destructive madness of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Another is that, compared to Australia, the current nature of many Southeast Asian countries is better understood by references to leaders and the era, such as the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Suharto in Indonesia, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia.
The fourth point is that much of the focus in the modern history of these Southeast Asian nations would disproportionately coalesce around the era when these men were at their political peak (acknowledging that many Thais maintain, as Thai law compels them to do, that the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej transcends politics).
Finally, it highlights to me once again the incredible duration of the Thai King’s reign and his astonishing influence in shaping contemporary Thailand. Very few Thais have ever lived in a Thailand where he was not King. No understanding of Thailand could be complete without the King being central to the narrative, but with Bhumibol Adulyadej remaining in power then to a large extent history is still to be written in modern Thailand.